GPLv4 anyone?

First, I should state that I am not a lawyer and nor have I any training or schooling in law.

Over on one of the NetBSD mailing lists for its users, netbsd-users, someone from outside posted an email declaring that they were creating GPLv4 such that it was more compatible with using software freely. The initial email CC'd lots of interesting parties. As one might expect, RMS chimed in with the predictable response.

This made me stop and think. Why can't someone call something they create the GNU GPL? Or more to the point, is there anything stopping me from creating a document and calling that GPLv4? I summarised these questions in a followup email to Richard's reply, to which there is no response yet.

For the sake of curiousity, I went and had a look at the section of the license that allows you to upgrade to another version. It reads like this:

    This program is free software: you can redistribute it and/or modify
    it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by
    the Free Software Foundation, either version 3 of the License, or
    (at your option) any later version.

This paragraph is interesting on a couple of grounds:

  • 1. The use of "the License" could possibly be argued to be ambiguous as nowhere in the document itself is the term "the License" defined. It is common in legal documents to see something like this: ...the GNU General Public License (hereafter referered to as "the License")... or even to define the term "License" in a similar fashion to the manner in which Program and others are defined much higher up in the document.
  • 2. The reference to "any later version" is again potentially ambiguous. Do all GNU General Public Licenses have to have from the FSF? Why can't I write my own GNU General Public License? Furthermore, this phrase refers directly to the License which is not clearly defined so if we're not sure what that means then this also has no meaning.

Question is, if you have a couple of loose ends like that, can you thereafter unravel the entire GPL or use them as grounds for defense against litigation for an alleged infringement of the GPL?

The catch here is that this is a legal document and as such, precise wording and phrasing is required to ensure that the correct meaning is conveyed. It may be that the use of English here isn't vague in some courts of law (or to some people) but put a couple of laywers in court to fight over the GPL and I'm sure that the meaning of ambiguous phrases like this would be entertainment for them for days.

I suppose the real question to ask here is what is to stop anyone from authoring anything titled GNU General Public License Version 5 and thereafter claim it is a later version of the GNU General Public License, originally written by the FSF? Can you imagine if Microsoft found a way to legally author a later version of the GNU GPL that could be used in place of the existing GPL?

In case you have forgotten, I'm not a lawyer and all of the above is just my personal opinion having spent 30 seconds looking and thinking about it. Well maybe less than 30 seconds - I try hard not to think about the GPL, it makes me want to vomit.

Another twist on this is what exactly does Free Software Foundation refer to? The document doesn't define that, either. Does this mean that in a country where there is no entity called the Free Software Foundation that there are limitations on enforcing the GPL? Again, what if Microsoft were to register an organisation known as the Free Software Foundation in Nigeria or some other unobvious country? I'm actually curious if it is possible to register such an entity separately in California to Massachusetts? Or is the register for foundations country wide?


I think this is pretty straight forward. "The License" refers to "the GNU General Public License" AS PUBLISHED BY THE FSF. Therefore, anyone can create a GPLv4 if they want, but only when it is published by the FSF does the upgrade provision hold.

Posted by Nathaniel McCallum on July 17, 2008 at 07:25 AM PDT #

And what if I were to found an organisation in Australia or Bolivia or China or... and call it the Free Software Foundation?

Posted by Darren on July 17, 2008 at 07:32 AM PDT #

First, such an action would likely be treated in most countries as fraud, trademark infringement or, at least, acting in bad faith.

Second, the FSF instructs you to put the full header (not just the portion you quoted; see the full header here: into your software. This full header contains either the address of the FSF or its URL.

Posted by Nathaniel McCallum on July 17, 2008 at 09:48 AM PDT #

The FSF is not a registered trademark, or else the use by the FSF is such that they would not be protected by the court as they never use (r) or (tm), and there are limitations on what trademark protection can do. If the FSF wishes for FSF to be <i>theirs</i> in all countries then they are required to register it thus.

Posted by Darren on July 17, 2008 at 02:17 PM PDT #

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